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No Executions in Harris County This Year, Why?

The number of people being sentenced to death row by Harris County juries is shrinking.

 

Capital Punishment

Harris County has been called the “capital of capital punishment.”

But that may be changing.

“There was a time when there were lots of death penalty cases being tried in Harris County,” says Stan Schneider, criminal defense lawyer. “It seems like there was always at least one going on.”

He has seen the shift in sentencing in Harris County and  points to a change made in 2005 that allowed juries an alternative: life without parole .

“The numbers of times that they sought death penalty after they had life without parole, the numbers started going down dramatically,” Schneider says.

But Houston death penalty expert and advocate Dudley Sharp disagrees.

“The reduction in death sentences have nothing to do with life without parole,” says Sharp.

He says death penalty sentences were already on the decline before the “life without parole.”

Sentencing in Texas had peaked in 1999, with 48 people added to death row, and was already down to 23 people in 2004 before life without parole.

Sharp believes the death penalty has acted as a deterrent to murder.

“The primary reduction cause for death sentences is the most obvious, which is the reduction in capital murders,” he says.

Amanda Murzullo isn’t convinced.

“There have been a number of studies that have sort of debunked that theory that it actually deters,” says Murzullo.

She’s the executive director of Texas Defender Services. They specialize in representing death row inmates.

She believes there has been an improvement in representation for inmates, and says that’s what has helped lower death row sentencing in Harris County.

”I think what you also see is defense attorneys are better trained and are aware they need to investigate their cases for the jury to give a verdict of less than death,” she says.

On top of that, the Supreme Court has made rulings in the past decade that curb death penalty sentencing like, not being able to execute juveniles or intellectually disabled people.

But the biggest reason for a decrease of sentencing in Harris County comes down to the District Attorney’s office, according to Jeff Newberry.

He works at the UH Law Center.

Newberry says 20 years ago, the Harris County DA’s office was aggressive in its pursuit of the death penalty.

“The Harris County District Attorney was a man named Johnny Holmes,” Newberry says. “He held that position for about 20 years.”

Holmes was the DA from 1979 to 2000, and sent more than 200 inmates to death row.

Newberry says it became normal.

”Once a county gets used to sentencing people to death, it’s easier to do over and over again,” he says. “Also larger counties can better bear the cost of the death penalty trial which is a lot more expensive.”

Stats show that a death penalty can cost over a million dollars whereas a non-death case can cost around $740,000.

Kim Ogg, the current Harris County District Attorney, says she knows it’s a hefty cost.

“There’s the enormous cost of the death penalty the fact that I don’t believe it’s a deterrent, but I never took it off the table,” she says.

She says each case is different and she’ll pursue them on a case-by-case basis

But she hasn’t ignored the shift in opinion on capital punishment.

“In terms of the number of death penalty cases you’re just not going to see it,” Ogg says. “The county is not in the same place that it was when I was a prosecutor in the early 90s.”

No new inmates from Harris County have been sentenced to death row since 2014.

 

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